Five Questions for Cambridge’s Monarch Nannies
A family checks out the monarch butterflies still in their nursery boxes shortly before helping to escort them to the meadow for release on August 7.  Kim Ahern/Cambridge Water Department Photo.

Why are Monarch butterflies so special? We recently asked five questions of Martine Wong, Fresh Pond Reservation (FPR) Outreach & Volunteer Coordinator, and her Cambridge Mayor’s  Summer Youth Employment Program (MSYEP) intern, Shewit.  On August 6th and 7th, amidst some fanfare—kids and puppets—Martine, Shewit and other staff and volunteers released most of the butterflies that they had helped raise, under the auspices of the Water Department of the City of Cambridge, over the course of the summer.

1. Why is FPR raising butterflies for release?

Shewit: We raise Monarch butterflies every year to educate people about and show the life cycle of the butterflies and to teach the importance of milkweed to Cambridge residents so they might plant milkweed in their gardens. Milkweed is the only plant [Monarchs] lay their eggs on and eat when they are caterpillars. The Monarch butterfly is now in decline because of milkweed plants’ reduction by pesticides and because of using land for other purposes such as for pavement and farming.

Martine Wong, left, with volunteer Lisa and MSYEP intern Shewit, at the Monarch Release event at Lusitania Meadow, Fresh Pond Reservation.
Cambridge Water Dept. staffer Martine Wong (left) with volunteer Lisa Recolta (middle) and MSYEP intern Shewit Yitbarek (right), at the Monarch Release at Lusitania Meadow, Fresh Pond Reservation.Kim Ahern/Cambridge Water Department Photo.

Martine: There are several reasons we’re raising Monarch butterflies for release at Fresh Pond! We hope to teach people about the connection between shrinking butterfly populations and the importance of protecting wildlife habitat. We also want to show people that there are action steps they can take to protect them—you can plant milkweed and other native pollinator-friendly plants, and help to remove invasive plants such as Black Swallow-wort. Also, they are exquisitely beautiful and a joy to behold.

2. Once you received the larvae in the mail, up until this moment of releasing the full grown butterflies, what surprised you most about them?

Shewit: They eat a lot of milkweed leaves and they grow so fast.

3. If we want to help Monarchs live in our city as a whole, what can kids (and just anyone, for that matter) do to make it a welcoming place for them?

pupating and hatching of Monarchs at Fresh Pond
Visitors to Fresh Pond Reservation this summer could view Monarchs at the Ranger Station, in various stages of their life cycle.

Shewit: To make a welcoming place for the Monarch butterfly is to plant enough milkweed plants in the garden, without pesticides. Once the butterfly lays her eggs, the caterpillar continues living upon the plant until it becomes a butterfly—there is no need to change things or worry about it. OR, If the person does not have garden they can raise them in the cage.

Martine: Monarch butterfly caterpillars exclusively eat milkweed – they truly depend on this plant for their survival. A sea of pesticide/herbicide-free milkweed plants for adults to lay eggs on and for caterpillars to eat would be a great welcome, along with planting native pollinator plants that can provide nectar for adult butterflies.

4. What did you learn from other Monarch projects in the United States?

Shewit: I learned some interesting facts, such as monarchs do not have eyelids and they can see UV lights. If the monarchs are in a cage, they need clean space and food because their waste is too much.

The adult Monarch in its new habitat at Lusitania Meadow, Cambridge
An adult Monarch butterfly raised in captivity by the Cambridge Water Department gets accustomed to its new surroundings. Kim Ahern/Cambridge Water Department Photo.

5. If we see a Monarch butterfly at Fresh Pond, will we know it’s one of the ones raised in captivity?

Martine: There’s no way of knowing if it’s one of ours! There are tagging programs for the purposes of learning more about their migration and biology. Perhaps we will try that out next year!

Monarchs are released from captivity by Cambridge's Monarch Nannies

The butterflies are released! Kim Ahern/Cambridge Water Dept. Photo


  • Find other resources about Monarch butterflies in general, and the Cambridge Water Department program in particular, on the Water Department’s Monarch Watch Page.
  • Read the Boston Globe’s coverage of the Cambridge Water Department Monarch Release on August 7, 2016.
  • Find out more about the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program, which partnered with more than 125 community organizations and city departments this year. Opportunities include many in sustainability and environmental fields, in addition to the internship offered at Fresh Pond Reservation and Alewife Reservation.

    Giant puppets of monarch and other butterflies (and a few moths) were part of the festivities and parade that escorted the butterflies to Lusitania Meadow at Fresh Pond Reservation, where they were released. Kim Ahern/Cambridge Water Department Photo.
    Giant puppets of monarch and other butterflies (and a moth or two) were part of the parade that escorted the Monarch butterflies to Lusitania Meadow at Fresh Pond Reservation, where they were released. The puppets were made by community members through the Cambridge Wildlife Puppetry ProjectKim Ahern/Cambridge Water Department Photo.

A Single Species: An End-of-January Investigation

There is sometimes too much, or too little, simplification that goes on when “environmental education” takes hold. Starting with a single species, as Fresh Pond Reservation staff in Cambridge, Mass., will do on January 31st with “The Secret Life of White Oaks,” can make a path for kids, families, anyone, to start small and grow curious from there.

White oaks are the ones with rounded lobes on their leaves; and oaks, in general are trees that keep their leaves well into the winter.

Information about the Secret Life of White Oaks walkabout at Fresh Pond Reservation

What’s your single favorite or familiar species—the one that drew you in to a fascination with nature more broadly, or that you still hold in your mind’s eye, or that’s a talisman in everyday life? Flora or fauna notwithstanding, a single species is a direct line from the human to the natural world.

Snowfall in the City

When children wake up with the outdoor world coated with even an inch or two of snow, the transformation of their world isn’t partial, as it is for the jaded among the rest of us, who’ve seen hundreds of snowfalls come and go. We have turned into the shovelers, the drivers, the schleppers, the planning-ahead experts.

Illustration from Under the Snow, by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by  Constance R. Bergum
Illustration from Under the Snow, by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Constance R. Bergum

A snowfall is a complete transformation, for kids. And so it is for the animals with whom young children are apt to identify. To follow and learn from children’s newness to snow, and extend their own scientific curiosity, have a look at Melissa Stewart’s book Under the Snow. It’s recommended for ages 4–8, but teaches and parents should consider it for twos and threes. The book takes us on a walk through different habitats—wetland, pond, forest, and others—and shows how different processes unfold under the snow in those different settings. Along the way, meet a vole, a newt, a chipmunk, and a carp.

The advantage of not thinking ahead to when the snow will melt, nor applying sand or “Sno-Melt,” means the very youngest children are open to the in-the-moment experience—to the eye-popping, swirling, tactile weirdness of snow.

Author Melissa Stewart (left) and I thumb through her book about animal adaptation in winter, Under the Snow (illustrated by Constance R. Bergum), at the Massachusetts Environmental Education Society conference, Spring 2014.
Author Melissa Stewart (left) and I thumb through her book about animal adaptation in winter, Under the Snow (illustrated by Constance R. Bergum), at the Massachusetts Environmental Education Society conference, Spring 2014.

There’s a nice “reader’s theater” script that goes with Under the Snow:

Narrator: Under the snow in a pond…A bluegill circles slowly through the chilly water.

Bluegill: Glug! Glug! I sure wish I had enough energy to catch that little bug.

Narrator: The waterboatman swimming nearby has a different point of view.

Water boatman: Thank goodness that big fish can’t chase me down!

Taking an animal’s point of view is a terrific way for kids to learn about the world.

Snow is a great open-ended toy, too; its rarity and serendipity makes it all the more so.

Postscript: I was lucky to meet Melissa Stewart last spring at the Massachusetts Environmental Education Society conference.IMG_7637 I’m enthralled with all her work. Feathers: Not Just for Flying is a recent one that hits that difficult sweet spot in nature education picture books.There are always  terrific authors at the MEES conference. This year it will be on March 5, 2015. Here are a few more folks I admire who were at last year’s conference:

Author and Illustrator Gordon Morrison with two of his works, at MEES Conference, Spring 2014.
Author and Illustrator Gordon Morrison with two of his works, at MEES Conference, Spring 2014.
Loree Griffin Burns, with her book Handle with Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey, at MEES conference, Spring 2014
Loree Griffin Burns, with her book Handle with Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey, at MEES conference, Spring 2014

Dragonflies and Damselflies and Algae, Oh My!

Here in the Greater Boston area we’ve just had a discharge of the combined sewer overflow system due to recent heavy rains. This affects the entire Mystic River watershed of which the Alewife Brook watershed is a part.

Sewer separation work in Cambridge, Mass. residential area, July 2013
Sewer separation work in Cambridge, Mass. residential area, July 2013

The announcement of the overflow comes at a time when I need a reminder of the reasons why I can’t get onto and off of my street these days—construction crews are separating what is now a combined sewage and stormwater system into separate systems.

Damselfy  at Fresh Pond by In the Big Muddy, July 2013
Damselfy (tentatively identified as a Blue-fronted dancer) taken at Fresh Pond by In the Big Muddy, July 2013

This  work will eventually—when this ever ends!–mean a great deal less toxics and untreated sewage flow into Charles River and Alewife Brook. Currently, only 40% of the collection system in the City of Cambridge has been separated in this way, according to the city’s department of public works. Kudos to the many people who support, volunteer, and work for clean water in this area, in particular, the members of the Mystic River Watershed Association.

On the playing-outdoors front, battalions of parents have been organizing a terrific event called “Getting Ready to Honk!,” in which kids who live or go to school in our little corner of Cambridge, Mass., will make dragonfly and damselfly costumes and algae handpuppets in preparation for the Honk! Parade on October 13th.

The “Getting Ready to Honk!” event, from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, August 10th will be held at Fresh Pond Reservation. Co-sponsored by Tobin Friends of Fresh Pond Club (er—that would be me, actually)  and open to any and all Cambridge families with kids ages 5–11 (ummmm…what was I thinking?), this crafty and unusual project is just the beginning of a massive and massively community-building undertaking: Fresh Pond Creatures at Honk!.

If you are a local, please come, either to participate with your kids or to help out. If you’re not from these parts, please send positive vibes and any algae or odonata items of interest toward me as I navigate the thin line between puppetry and chaos. I will be covered in hot-glue, panty hose, and pipecleaner stab wounds by the time the afternoon is over and I will need to lie down on the peaceful boardwalk and watch real damselflies at Black’s Nook for half an hour to recover from the event.

Here’s a preview of the prototype dragonfly wing apparatus, sans pantyhose (“bring me your tired, your worn…”). Eyepieces are in development. I think they’ll be worn like headbands. The tricky part is making it all easy for kid-parent pairs to assemble. Then I get to worry about making sure everyone saves their costumes and remembers to come to the parade on a Sunday in October (falling on a three-day weekend).

wing armature for dragonfly/damselfy costumes for Honk! 2013
wing armature for dragonfly/damselfy costumes for Honk! 2013

I’ve proposed to some parents of older kids in the city the making of a giant puppet or puppets to add biodiversity to the blue heron backpack puppets that Michelle Lougee and I made last year (rather frenetically, at least on my end). Alas, the event comes nearly at the beginning, not the end, of the school year, and some wheels turn slowly.  I’ll be thrilled to bits to see a giant raccoon sashaying down Mass Ave, held aloft by a triumphant corps of Cambridge Public School middle schoolers. Maybe it won’t be this year. Maybe the idea will percolate enough by 2014 to come to fruition.

Two great blue heron backpack puppets at Honk! 2012.
Two great blue heron backpack puppets at Honk! 2012.

My kids will be glad that I don’t plan to burn the midnight oil again this year dressing and painting those babies like I did last year. They’ve (the herons) have hung out in various nooks in our household all year. Currently, one heron has a reprieve from the basement and is in our living room, very much in our way.

Apropos of dragonflies, I am a new follower of the blog The Dragonfly Woman, written by professional odonatologist Chris Goforth of North Carolina, who, among other things, has a form for reporting static swarms of dragonflies. Her project is an interesting example of citizen science:

Have you seen a dragonfly swarm? I am tracking swarms so I can learn more about this interesting behavior.  If you see one, I’d love to hear from you!  Please visit my Report a Dragonfly Swarm page to fill out the official report form.  It only takes a few minutes! Thanks!

via Swarm Sunday (On Monday) – 7/14/2013 – 7/20/2013 | The Dragonfly Woman.

Apparently, dragonfly swarming (the static, feeding-related kind, that is) happens most frequently at dusk and dawn. Goforth displays swarm report information she collects on a map, updated periodically. I like the unrequited love she expresses for all things odonata on her blog. Perhaps these creatures (bless them, they eat mosquitoes!) aren’t to everyone’s taste, but one must ask why the bird and not the dragonfly captures the imagination of so many.


Our Tobin Friends of Fresh Pond club made algae hand puppets in the spring during one of the last sessions.

Scenedesmus (unfinished), made by G. (fourth grade)
Scenedesmus (unfinished), made by G. (fourth grade)
Chlamydomonas, made by H. (fourth grade)
Chlamydomonas, made by H. (fourth grade)

At “Getting Ready for Honk!” on  August 10th, kids will be able to make these as well. It kind of goes with the white-glove brass band-turned-upside-down idea, doesn’t it?

Lyngbya, made by F. (4th grade)
Lyngbya, made by F. (4th grade)

O! Ye Briny Deep: Fracking vs. Nurse Carver

Donna Carver, an Ohio nurse and environmental activist, has taken a stand against the use of “brine” on the grounds of her local county fair.

What is brine? It’s a euphemism for oilfield waste. She’s petitioned the body governing the fairgrounds to cease using it. According to Carver, the study claiming the product is safe was based on only one year of research. The study concentrated on the use of “brine” as a de-icer on little-travelled roadways. The fairgrounds use it for “dust control.”

A few of the inorganic compounds found in the brine include arsenic, barium, lead, mercury and uranium. A few of the organic compounds include benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene. The health effects these components can cause include leukemia, neurological disorders, respiratory system irritation, cancerous tumors, birth defects and other developmental disorders.

via Letter to the Morrow County Fairboard Executive Committee Members – Frack The Media.

Dear reader, what does “brine” connote to you? To me it does not connote anything but the irrefutable Good bestowed on the world by pickles, that all-American half-sour, general-store, vegetable version of Apple Pie. Shucks, with all the fuss about fermentation and so forth, it’s even got  a new-age shimmer of simplicity and health about it. Brine. Use it for your pickle, use it for a turkey. Heck, it even carries a swashbuckling bravery in its salty little syllable:

Come listen to me story
 Of ships so proud and fine
Of captains and of fishermen
 All from the Maritimes
Great carpenters and craftsmen
 Who worked with skill and pride
Built mighty ships of the bluenose line
 to sail the ocean widecho: The Bluenose Line,  the Bluenose Line
     Fastest ships in all the world
     To plow the stormy brine

I’d need more chemistry under my belt—enough to decipher this scholarly paper about contamination of groundwater in Morrow County by oilfield waste would be nice.  Nonetheless, I think I’m coming down with a parody.

Come listen to me story
Of the Morrow County Fair
Of  4-H calves and human kids
Who went a-playing there....

Carver seems, from the little I’ve read, to be another angry parent. Notice I didn’t say “just another.” She’s another mother out front. If we’re there, or if we’re going there, it’s not because we’re having fun; it’s fueled (you’ll excuse that) by a very specific kind of desperation.

“Out front” is not where I’m happiest. It’s just where I’ll have to be if we’re going to restore a realistic hope of a livable earth. I’m getting ready to swashbuckle, harness outrage, and channel incredulity. It might just  turn the tide on corporate doublespeak, lobbyism, and the seas of red tape that conspired to get us to the current sorry state of human and environmental health in the first place.


Off Trail in the Peppermint Forest

It’s time for me to leave the sidelines.

It’s time for slow this-and-that. Slow Food. Slow Families. Slow Medicine, even.

Unplug. Be in the moment. Pay attention. But to what?

The “movement” to simplify has, in a way, come full circle. I like those nice two-word concepts, above. Actually, two-word concepts is about all I can stomach these days. A life of slogans has an appeal. As I’m getting older (and harder of hearing) a barrage of verbiage isn’t cutting it any more. Leave me alone, garrulous adolescents, repetitive whining little ones, and radio mavens.  Even noncommercial radio is turning me off with the pitter-patter of its patter, so I’m turning it off. And online petitions? Here’s the checklist as it exists in the back bar-room of my mind. The list gets the same treatment as any sequence of paragraphs did in my 1979 journalism class—the whole piece has to stand on its own when the bottom paragraphs get lopped off:

  • Child #1 CHECK
  • Child #2 CHECK (If there is a third, fourth, and fifth, and so forth, they all get checked off, too)
  • Spouse (if applicable) CHECK
  • Job    CHECK
  • Making Meals CHECK
  • Paying Bills  CHECK
  • Laundry NOT SO MUCH
  • Sleep, Hygiene, Doctor Appts, Downtime—that whole shebang SURE, BUT HIGHLY VARIABLE
  • Furthering Social Justice, Doing Unto Others, Understanding Afghanistan, Change.Org Petitions, Reversing Climate Change…

Wait a minute, what was that last one? Should that even be on my list at all, even at the bottom?

See, I think, in all of this urgency to be “slow” and to return to the basics, something else basic is missing. Not something, two things.

You can’t be “Slow” if you’re trying to make ends meet.

Not slow in that aged cheese, hand-packed lunch for the kids sort of way, not if getting to work, keeping up with bills or getting work is out of reach.

You can’t be “Slow” if it’s a shortcut to the sidelines.

In Chutes and Ladders, and in Candy Land, you have NO CONTROL over your destiny. Are these the games we want our kids to learn? Because they need to learn the cardinal rule that you have NO CONTROL over whether you get socked with the “Plumpy” second-rate hard candy or end up shacking up with “King Kandy” at the Candy Castle.

Off Trail in the Peppermint Forest. Who needs a path when the path that's been charted by others leads to malaria in northern climes?
Off Trail in the Peppermint Forest. Who needs a path when the path that’s been charted by others leads to malaria in northern climes?

I like aged cheese and hand-canning and growing my own parsley just as much as the next person (on the cheese front—maybe more, sorry to say). But as I’m bushwhacking through the vines of parenthood (think Little Shop of Horrors) and feeling sorry for myself way too often for the emotional and physical ramifications of being a “mature mother”—a phrase I never use even in my own head because it’s simply an awful euphemism, but I’ll use it now anyway because SLOW JOURNALISM at this moment means just-in-time-ranting, aka unedited and unexpurgated and the mature mother thing is an epithet—I’m unable to lop off that very last thing with my wicked cool mom-ninja-machete.

That last thing on the list is so—I don’t know, so—overwhelming as to be farcical. It’s like World Peace. Yeah, I’m going to work for world peace—by grabbing my kids who are screaming and trying to maim each other over something someone took from someone else’s room when the rule is you can’t go in someone else’s room without permission.

No, that last thing had to do with global warming, had to do with not only the messed-up politics in the country but the entire economy and actually the entire planet. Mother Earth.

I wonder what her list looks like.

The Host-Parasite Thing, with Many Digressions

Image copyright University of Montreal
Did you know? Ladybugs, aka ladybeetles, can be parasitized by wasps.

Ideas and facts aren’t bad just because we acquire them via social media. As a parent and self-teaching nature club guide* I’ll take what I can get from the Internet. Here’s an example. So am I a host or a parasite in the digital food chain?

*I’ve been calling myself a “leader” of the club I started for elementary kids. but that’s because, in addition to “teacher,” it’s what the other spunworgs** seem to expect. But I think I’m ditching that. “Leader” is  girlscoutspeak. (Let me tell you sometime about my research on the scouting movement in mid-20th century Botswana. But not here.) Point is, I actually don’t lead the kids; they tend to lead me.

**I hope my twelve-year-old never outgrows her capacity to speak backwards. She’s been a happy contributor to our family-specific lexicon. I bet you’ve got an FSL, too. You do know adolescents have always been a fundamental contributor to language change, throughout human history, don’t you? You may love or hate particular neologisms (I got me some humdingers I love to hate), but do not a Luddite be on slang as a whole.

A Toolkit for Community Planning with Regard to Open Space

Fresh Pond

A Toolkit for Community Planning with Regard to Open Space

Caveat: this array of links from Mass Audubon may not be fully up to date. However, I offer it here for those of us relative newbies interested in understanding and working on open space issues.

Pick Up Sticks: How Nature Education Gets Its Mojo Back

An 11-year-old clambers up a waterfall in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom

Some new voices have come in to play. That’s a bad pun but a good thing. They’re from people who are in the outdoors every day with kids. They have a lot to offer parents or afterschool workers like me. Some of us have read Richard Louv and have concluded that our own kids need to be outdoors more. Sometimes it’s more personal. I have body memory of my own outdoor play as a child. I am also clear that, as a young adult, I lost a feeling of being and belonging in the natural world. I’m not sure “lost” is the whole of it.

Here’s one of the voices for Free Outdoor Play:

We have to come to understand this: kids don’t experience the world visually. They crave interaction. They need to touch, feel, climb, dig, and…yes, destroy. Destruction is sometimes the natural byproduct of nature play. Keeping kids on the trail all the time is a death sentence to their nature connection.

I’m a conservation biologist, so I get that people can love nature to death. I understand that sensitive areas need to be off limits. I know that too much foot traffic can tip nature’s delicate balance. But I also know in my heart of hearts that if we put a wall between kids and nature, we will not have another generation of conservation biologists or environmental champions.

(From Ron Swaisgood’s post NATURE BULLIES: A conservation biologist’s perspective on children in nature : The New Nature Movement.)

I’ll admit to telling kids to stay on the path, at times. I’ll admit to telling them to put down a stick, at times. I’ll admit to taking a flower that was plucked when it shouldn’t have been plucked, and throwing it aside to make a point. (I’m not proud of that one, but where does Leave No Trace begin?). Picking up sticks is as natural as natural can be for a kid. It’s just something they have to do. The problem isn’t with picking up sticks—it’s with mock-fighting or accidental or quasi-accidental poking of other kids with those sticks during school time or out-of-school program time. Ours is a litigious culture and many kids —I’ve got one of them—are capable of inflicting injury in such circumstances.

Tony Deis, founder of Trackers Earth, winnows out  the chaff in the nature/outdoor education movement.

Our style of outdoor education requires the depths of old school wilderness legends, the hawk eye focus of the ultimate sentry and the creative wiliness of the best Dungeon Master to guide the way. Camp becomes powerful by distilling “nature connection” [sic] rawest form. Gutting fish you caught is a compelling activity. Starting a fire to stay warm is compelling. Escaping through the wilderness and slaying a force of faux zombies with safe foam arrows, definitely compelling.

(From  Exploring Portland’s Natural Areas; Interview #2: Tony Deis, Trackers Earth.)

Reading about Trackers Earth makes me want to pick up and move out to Oregon—wait a minute, there’s some groundwork to be done here in this very city. Are you going to help me?